The Need for an Empire Lens

Screen Shot 2020-07-06 at 11.17.36 AMThe new biblical understanding of the 21st century is best described in a quote from Warren Carter, to the effect that the Roman Empire is not to be seen as the background in understanding the New Testament, “it is the foreground.”

Basing their works on this, some of the writers in my bibliography have laid out an understanding of what the empire looked like and its effect upon the citizens of the empire, particularly those 95% who were not of the elite class and who made up the persons in the early Christ associations. The authors include people like the aforementioned Carter. But also there are Richard Horsley pioneer in the empire criticism, John Dominic Crossan and others. As well as these biblical scholars there is sociologist Michael Mann with his four volumes on the four sources of social power.

In addition, there is the growing list of writers who have often concentrated upon a single N T book to show what it looks like to read the N T through its empire context. Brigitt Kahl’s “Galatians Reimagined” is a good example of this.

But none of the 100 plus authors in my empire bibliography has so far done what Daniel Oudshoorn has. On one hand, he looks closely at the structure of the Roman Empire: he analyzes what are called the four cornerstones of the empire: the household, the honor/shame value framework, the system of patronage, and imperial religion. On the other hand, he looks through the lens provided by these four cornerstones at what are considered the seven undisputed letters of Paul.

Oudshoorn gives a granular view of how these four operate in the empire in material of the first two volumes. I’ll cover this in my next post. But the best stuff is found in the third volume where he reads Paul’s letters as they establish an alternative way of life for what he calls the Pauline faction among the early Jesus movement. What he does, in effect, is to use the lens of those four cornerstones by which the culture of the empire can be understood. He uses this perspective to read anew the undisputed seven letters of Paul- I Thessalonians, I and II Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon,and Romans.

To give an example: Patronage.

“The world of the authors and readers of the New Testament, however, was one in which personal patronage was an essential means of acquiring access to goods, protection or opportunities for employment and advancement. Not only was it essential—it was expected and publicized! The giving and receiving of favors was, according to a first-century participant, the “practice that constitutes the chief bond of human society” (Seneca Ben. 1.4.2).””         deSilva, David. Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity (p. 96).

Patronage was the “trickle down economy” of the empire which aided in the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

Paul’s collection from his congregations for the Jesus poor in Jerusalem has usually gotten very little attention from Biblical scholars, even though four of those seven authentic letters of Paul make reference to it. (Gal 2:10; 6:6–10; 1 Cor 16:1–4; 2 Cor 8:1–9:15; 12:14–18; Rom 15:25–32)

But, according to Oudshoorn, when looked at through the lens of patronage, the collection provides the ‘cornerstone’ of Paul’s economics. Where patronage is the means of the elite controlling the economic goods, Paul’s collection is the means for the poor who are above the subsistence level aiding fellows of The Way who were barely subsisting back in Jerusalem.

It was an economics based upon “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” I would name the contemporary philosophy from which this quote comes if the “C” word wasn’t subversive today. It is clear that Paul’s economics were subversive in his day.

If patronage is a cornerstone for preserving the Roman way- economics in the control of the elite, an alternative system would undercut patronage. In addition, with Rome controlling its empire consisting of many different conquered peoples by the ‘divide and control’ method, to have different conquered gentile nations supporting economically struggling Jewish Christian people would be seditious. Gentiles are supposed to look down on the Jews like everyone else, not treat them like brothers and sisters who are needy. Money is supposed to be in the hands and control of the elite, not the poor!

The Collection then for Oudshoorn is an “example of sibling-based economic mutualism”.

DAVID A. de SILVA, in his HONOR, PATRONAGE, KINSHIP & PURITY: Unlocking New Testament Culture, with a slight difference in the labelling of the cornerstones, agrees that, looking through the lens of the social realities of the Roman Empire, one finds a different reading of the New Testament than was seen by earlier biblical scholars.

Warning: this won’t be my last post on Oudshoorn’s three books.

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